Jan. 30, 2012
By Jerry Hill
Baylor Bear Insider
Nearly eight months later, the pain is still there.
One strike away from eliminating Cal and advancing to host Dallas Baptist in a Super Regional, the Baylor baseball team gave up four runs in the bottom of the ninth and had its season come to a crashing halt with a 9-8 loss in the Houston Regional.
"Being one strike away and then everything just unfolding the way it did, it definitely humbles you a lot just to respect the game and know that anything can happen at any given moment," said junior left-hander Josh Turley. "But in the fall, we used that as a motivator. We're not going to forget about it, because it's still in our hearts. But it's definitely motivated us to want to get back to that situation to prove that we can handle it and move on to bigger and better things."
One step at a time. The Bears, who return eight position starters among 20 returning letterwinners from a team that finished 31-28, hit the field for their first official practice on Friday and have three weeks to prepare for a season-opening series against Oral Roberts.
"The way last year ended, this has more the feel of the next day, a practice the next day after that game," said 18th-year head coach Steve Smith, whose team is coming off its 12th NCAA Regional appearance since 1998. "We have so many of those guys back from that experience that was so painful and so deep, that's not one you put aside very quickly."
That loss has been the driving force for the team to survive "one of the hardest falls we've ever been through," said junior outfielder Logan Vick.
"Last year, losing like that, if that's not motivation for you, I don't know what is," Vick said. "It left a terrible taste in our mouth and gave us motivation for the fall. It was one of the hardest falls we've ever been through. It made us closer as a team. We got faster, stronger, bigger, and everyone's on board, going in the same direction. And we're going 200 feet at a time, taking one day at a time."
While the Bears lost only five players from last year's team, there are some significant holes to fill. Two-thirds of the weekend starting rotation are gone after All-Big 12 pitchers Logan Verrett and Brooks Pinckard were taken in the third and 10th round, respectively, and turned pro following their junior seasons.
Turley will likely assume the role of staff ace after going 5-4 with a 3.39 ERA and 63 strikeouts in 95.2 innings last year. He pitched a complete game to beat the host Rice team, 3-2, in last year's regional in Houston.
"It depends on how you define a No. 1," said Smith, when asked if Turley inherits the role that Verrett handled last year. "Out of a No. 1, you want reliability and consistency. You want a guy that you know what you're going to get every time he goes out there; the guys know what they're going to get. Does that mean you're going to shut everybody out? Does that mean you're going to win every time he steps on the field? No, but you know what you're going to get. You're going to get a guy that throws strikes, he's going to compete, and you're going to be in the game every time he goes out there."
Max Garner (2-4, 3.12, 8 saves), last year's closer, is expected to join Turley in the weekend rotation. But the other spot seems to be up for grabs between sophomore Brad Kunz, seniors Trent Blank and Tyler Bremer and freshmen Austin Stone and Michael Howard.
"That question won't be the one that's the most challenging," Smith said. "It's the guy that finishes the game. And I think we've got possibilities there, too. But you've got to get those things answered almost on the run a little bit at this level of the game. There are no established closers here. There's nobody here, like Josh, where you know what you're going to get (out of a closer), where once he walks out there, it's over."
If Garner does slide into the starter role, the list of bullpen candidates also includes Kolt Browder, Trae Davis, Crayton Bare and Dillon Newman.
Asked if his role as a potential Friday night starter changes his mindset, Turley said, "We're going to treat every game like it's Friday night."
"What we talked about in our team meetings is having the mindset that every game is Friday night," he said. "Every game is just as important to reach our ultimate goal of winning the Big 12 championship, regional, Super Regional, Omaha. It's all a process."
Junior first baseman Max Muncy (.322, nine homers, 44 RBIs) is a returning All-Big 12 pick who led the Bears in each of the Triple Crown categories. A Freshman All-American two years ago, Vick hopes to return to the form when he hit .329 with 10 homers and 27 RBIs with 11 stolen bases.
"It was not a fun season, really, for me personally," said Vick, who hit just .213 with two homers and 18 RBIs last season. "And then losing like that, it was not a fun season to be a part of. So this fall, I did everything I possibly could so that I would have no regret this season. . . . I take it personal whenever I fail, because I feel like I'm letting the team down. So this year, I'm not going to let that happen."
Junior Jake Miller (.299, 3, 27) is expected to move to shortstop after starting 50 games at third base last year, while Cal Towey (2.44, 4, 15) will likely move from outfield to third base. Steve DalPorto returns after starting 47 games at second base, giving the Bears a solid infield.
Seniors Josh Ludy and Joey Hainsfurther return behind the plate and will be joined by 2009 Freshman All-American Nathan Orf, a junior transfer from Illinois-Chicago who will have two years of eligibility remaining after sitting out last year.
Senior Dan Evatt (.220, 8, 23) returns to the outfield after finishing second in the Big 12 with six home runs in league play a year ago. Three freshmen - Adam Toth, Logan Brown and Howard - are also expected to compete for starting jobs in the outfield.
"I don't have any question marks, I really don't," Smith said. "I think the biggest challenge we'll face is dealing with the inevitable ups and downs of the season. I think that's the challenge."
Smith said he's enjoyed the experience of coaching his son, Ryan, a freshman right-handed pitcher and infielder from nearby Midway High School.
"Like any parent, I love seeing him," Steve said. "(My wife) Melinda would like to swap places with me a little bit so she could see him more. But so far, so good on that. The inevitable question is are you going to be able to treat Ryan like the rest of the team. And the answer is absolutely not. I'm going to treat the rest of the team like Ryan. And that's the best I can do."
The Bears open the season with a three-game series against Oral Roberts on Feb. 17-19 at Baylor Ballpark. For ticket information, call the Baylor Athletics Ticket Office at 254-710-1000 or order online at www.baylorbears.com/tickets.